The Boat People Back In The Day!
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Wed Jun 1, 2016 at 11:26am

Looking Back At The Families Living & Working on The Canal

Let’s have a look back at our inland waterways and discover more about the interesting people who lived and worked on our beautiful canal system during the Victorian era.

Once the waterways were built men, women and children worked long hard hours and sometimes in dangerous conditions to ensure the boats cargos reached their destinations. Earning a living on the canal network was not for the faint-hearted.

Day To Day Life

One area on the canal system that was regularly used for transportation of goods was Foxton Locks in Leicestershire a pretty part of the Grand Union Canal and not far from our own marina.

Just as it is today, back in the day it was also a well-used canal, as if you keep traveling on this route the canal eventually takes you all the way to London. Today it is a popular leisure spot for tourists, boaters and day trippers, but back in the 19th century it was anything from pretty and leisurely.

There was estimated around 18,000 families working and living on working canal boats, with 3000 women making up this number. So what was life like on this stretch of water during this time? Well quite simply, in its hay day it would have been very busy. During 1800 – 1840 this was the main route between the industrial Midlands and London. So there would have been coal going down to London and coming the other way would be goods coming up from the London docks, it was a hive of activity.

Fly boats were the express boats of the time and would work constantly day and night these were mainly manned by men only. The slow boats carried coal, stone and timber all of which were pulled by horses as there were no engines in any part of the 19th century.


The boaters sometimes came from farming back grounds and diversified to make more money. The transportation of goods was very much a family affair, with even the children growing up on the boats learning to help. As soon as the children were old enough they were expected to help out, there was no room for passengers on these trips and everyone had to pull their weight. Children soon learned how to operate the locks and lead the horses, playing an active part in working life. The work was hard and tough with some days lasting a grueling 17 hours.

The early boaters couldn't read or write due to a lack of education. However, they knew their numbers as they didn’t want to tricked be out of their wages!

The families place of work was also their home and with a lack of space, overcrowding, poor hygiene and limited conditions being just a few issues families faced every day on the boat. Life could be tough for all on-board. Families could include; husband and wife and up to 6 children all living in a very limited space which could cause cramped and uncomfortable living conditions. The boats cabin could be freezing in winter and boiling in the summer making their living accommodation anything but ideal.

The boating families made up a very strong community, having their own culture and way of life. They decorated the interiors of the boats with lace and rag rugs and decorated the exteriors with rose and castle paintings.

The families working the canal system were like the long distance lorry drivers of today, they had a job to do and they all mucked in to get the job done. However even though the whole family may have been working on the boat there was only one wage and that was paid once the boats goods where delivered. So the faster they got their cargo to it's destination the quicker they got paid. So basically the faster they worked, the more trips they could do and the more they were paid.

Extra money could be earned if the cargo was unloaded by the boaters, and as you can imagine they didn't have much time for leisure activities and relaxation due to the long hours they kept.

Despite these families working so hard, the boaters (sometimes referred too as “bargees”) gained a rather bad reputation. The Victorians grew suspicious of the boaters who rarely left the towpath and branded them; drinkers, criminals, scruffy and violent people. Some of these labels were warranted as they did drink and their appearance wasn’t the cleanest due to the work and living conditions they were subjected too. Fights would sometimes break out when a dispute was had at locks, giving them the reputation of being violent people.

Health Issues

In Braunston Northamptonshire, also known as the boats man’s spiritual home, (this was because many boaters chose this place for baptisms and burials), a deadly disease struck the village, it was carried along the canal from London. Filthy water was already a real hazard due to the poorly kept waterways and Typhoid was rife, but when Cholera arrived in the 1830s the results were catastrophic. It had a devastating impact on families, the church in Braunston also known as the “Cathedral of the Canals” holds some of the secrets about what happened during this time. Victims of the disease were buried in the village and the disease was said to have arrived in the village via a narrow boat. It’s said that a skipper brought his laundry ashore and took it to the local washer women who did the washing, but then caught Cholera and died.

In an attempt to deal with the outbreak the yards and boats were cleansed, 5 houses in the village were used to treat the sick; there were 70 cases in all and sadly 19 deaths. The outbreak of the disease did bring the boaters and land people together in their attempt to try and get the outbreak of Cholera under control.

During 1930 to 1960 Sister Mary became the Angel of the Waterways, she was never professionally qualified as a nurse, but on a day to day basis’s she dealt with problems caused by lack of healthcare and emergency situations caused by accidents, and more serious problems in her home village of Stoke Bruerne.

She was one of a kind and earned a British Empire Medal in 1951 for her selfless work. She retired in 1965. She was quoted as saying "You can't take me away from boat people. There isn't one of them wouldn't die for me, or one I wouldn't die for.”

Child Labour

During the Victorian era when children were expected to work in factories and mines. The canal children were on the bottom of the list when it came to safeguarding them and having any form of education. Eventually the Victorian parliament did recognise the need for children to have schooling and play time and the man who helped make those changes was the “children’s friend” George Smith. from Coalville. He was a dedicated and passionate man who never gave up and suffered personal financial problems in order to protect all working children. He worked for many long years to have his “wish list” of improvements put into place for working children;

Georges Wish List for The Boating Children;

  • No Boys on boats under 13 years old to work or sleep
  • No girls under the age of 18
  • Minimum space for sleeping in cabins
  • Cabin inspections to improve conditions
  • Canal boat children to pass a basic standard of education

Finally parliament passed a law that protected the canal children. Legislation was passed in 1877 which gave power to registration authorities to inspect boats and to restrict the number of people who could live on board. However the legislation simply permitted this to happen rather than required it to happen and little changed until the Act was amended in 1884.

Canal Children’s Schooling

The Victorians did not believe that children’s childhoods should be protected and they had the right to an education and play time. They didn’t think that learning from books at school would give them the same advantages as working in the labour market when they grew up. However in time laws were passed to enable canal children to gain an education. 

One of the schools was held on a boat and it was called the Elsdale, which opened in 1930. This made it easier for children, but they still did not attend every day. 

The Elsdale could take about 40 canal children who were provided with brief periods of education while their parents were awaiting orders.

By 1939 the Elsdale had become unsound and was hoisted onto the canal bank where schooling continued alongside the depot buildings until the 1950s.

When traveling the canal, children were able to attend schools where they only had to mix with their own kind like on the Elsdale. This suited the children and they enjoyed the novelty of attending school. However when the boats were moored, the children were expected to go to the main stream schools. However some of the children experienced bullying from the local children which didn’t make it such a pleasant experience for them.

By the 20th century it was compulsory for all children up to the age of 14 to attend school.

Sometimes the children would just turn up to clock in, but then move on with the family, if they didn’t settle in or if the family had to move on to find more work.

End Of An Era

Canal cargo was on the decline by the end of the 1960s, as faster means of transport was available i.e. the roads and railways. So by 1972 the canals started to be neglected and used for leisure purposes only.

Canal families moved away, and the children were often told to forget their backgrounds when settling into a new life due to the stigma of being from a boating background.

The working canals have shaped our landscape and have enriched our British history.

Now there is no stigma connected to being from a working boating background, in fact the complete opposite is true and people are interested in how the families lived and what it was like for all concerned.

Do you have a connection with the working canal people? If so we would love to hear your story and share your photos!